In one of his better recent columns, Charles Krauthammer provides good working definitions of an “idealist” and a “realist” in foreign policy and how to distinguish the two. Essentially, in my words not his, realism is a conservative notion, while idealists have a conservative wing and a liberal wing, generally represented by the so-called neoconservatists and the internationalists, respectively. The key differentiation for Krauthammer is the answer to one question: Do you believe in the arrow of history? Both wings of the idealists believe in the notion of perfectibility, if not of man, at least of the international system. Both believe in the arrow of history.
This leads me to one of President Obama’s key speech lines: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. This is the arrow of history. I believe he really believes that and that he has built his entire foreign policy mission on that phrase, beginning with his world “apology tour” at the beginning of his administration through his recent trips to Hiroshima, Japan and Vietnam. I will credit him for one thing on the recent trip. At least he departed from the apology routine in Hiroshima, but it would have been appropriate to have rounded out his visit there with an invitation to the Japanese Prime Minister for a visit to the U. S. S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
His idealism surfaced, however, with remarks like “Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them”, the pipe dream of all liberal internationalists, and “We must change our mind set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of the human race.” To do this, he suggests, will require a “moral revolution”. These are noble sentiments, but they represent the height of idealism of the liberal international mind set.
Meanwhile, when we survey the real world, we find either current or looming disasters in Iran, Russia, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, and China, all of which have grown more ominous under this administration. I’ve been accused, with justification, of being somewhat of a George W. Bush/Natan Sharansky neoconservative, but I suspect that what Obama is leaving behind for his successor around the world will require a pretty full dose of realism.